A common objection to Catholicism is that Catholics ignore the Bible in calling priests Father. After all, in Matthew 23:9, Jesus says, “call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven.”
It seems, on the surface, that Catholics are just violating Scripture wantonly. And really, how hard is it to just call the priest Reverend? But when you start to examine Scripture, you’ll quickly discover that Matthew 23:9 is one of the most misunderstood passages in all of Scripture.
So let me do three things: first, show that men are called “father” throughout the New Testament; second, that “father” is used as an honorific title throughout the New Testament; and finally, explain why this is compatible with what Christ is talking about in Matthew 23:9.
“Fathers” Throughout the New Testament
Let’s start in an obvious place, the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel. The genealogy in Matthew 1 lists a lot of fathers: “Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers…” (Matthew 1:2). Jesus talks about our fathers in Matthew 10:37 and Mark 10:29. Ephesians 6:2 reminds children, “honor your father and mother.” In fact, there are countless men referred to in the New Testament as fathers or father.
Protestants recognize this, and concede that it’s okay to call a man “father” in the biological sense, just not in the spiritual sense. Now, Matthew 23:9 doesn’t actually say that, does it? It says to call no man “father.” So my first point is that nobody takes Matthew 23:9 literally, including Mathew and Jesus.
Fathers In Faith
So what do we make of the idea that it’s okay to call a man a biological father, but not a spiritual father? That reading is also wrong, and contrary to the plain language of the Bible.
When Jesus tells the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, He has the rich man refer to Abraham by the title “Father Abraham” when praying to him (Luke 16:24; Luke 16:30). There’s not a hint anywhere in the passage that he’s wrong to call him that, either. James 2:21 likewise calls him “Abraham our father.” That’s the exact formulation that seems to be banned by Matthew 23:9. Likewise, there’s Acts 4:25, in which the Christians remind God of the words of “our father David Your servant.” Romans 9:10 refers to “our father Isaac.”
But couldn’t they just be calling them fathers, and meaning ancestors? Nope. Romans 4:11-18 explicitly tells us that Abraham is our father through faith:
“He received circumcision as a sign or seal of the righteousness which he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised and who thus have righteousness reckoned to them, and likewise the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but also follow the example of the faith which our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.
“The promise to Abraham and his descendants, that they should inherit the world, did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression
“That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants — not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham, for he is the father of us all, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations” — in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. In hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations; as he had been told, “So shall your descendants be.””
In Matthew 3:9, John the Baptist makes the same point, saying to the Pharisees and Sadducees, “do not presume to say to yourselves, `We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” In other words, biological descent from Abraham doesn’t cut it. It’s being his son in faith that matters. And Jesus Himself makes the same point in John 8:39, telling the Pharisees, “If you were Abraham’s children, then you would do what Abraham did.”
So clearly Abraham is called father (at least by Christians) because he’s our spiritual father, rather than our biological ancestor.
We see this in plenty of other places. St. Stephen, for example, uses it for the elders of the Jewish Council, beginning his speech, “Hear me, brethren and fathers!” (Acts 7:2). Obviously, he’s not claiming that the high priest and the elders he’s speaking to are his physical ancestors: he’s referring them as fathers in the same way we refer to priests as fathers today.
St. Paul even refers to himself as a spiritual father, saying, “in Christ Jesus I became your father through the Gospel” (1 Cor. 4:15). And St. Peter refers to Mark as his (spiritual) son in 1 Peter 5:13 – with the implication that Peter is his father in faith. So basically everyone in the New Testament uses father as a spiritual title. The common Protestant position (that it’s okay to call men father, but only if they’re a biological ancestor) is clearly wrong.
Understanding Matthew 23:9
So we’ve covered two things that Matthew 23:9 doesn’t mean. It doesn’t forbid the use of the word father, and it doesn’t forbid the use of the title father for a spiritual leader.
So what does it mean?
I explored this in some retreat notes that I posted elsewhere:
“Jesus said, “call no man on Earth your Father,” (Matt. 23: 19), yet St. Paul says, “I became your father through the Gospel” (1 Cor. 4:15). St. Paul warns earlier in that epistle, though, that there is no Paul or Apollos, only Christ (1 Cor. 1:12-13). And this is the key that ties it all together.
“Christ warns us not to call any man our father so as not to create an alternative to God, a figure to draw us away from God. If we are a Christian but also a Marxist, we find Marx and Christ pulling us in different directions. But to be a follower of St. Paul is to be a follower of Christ. Paul’s fatherhood draws you in to the One Divine Father.”
And from those same notes, “God is jealous of Baal, not Moses; of Mammon, not Peter. God’s jealousy is of anything which draws us away from Him.” That is, it’s a jealousy of love.
Christ denounced the Pharisees for creating a separate set of allegiances, obedience to a rabbinical tradition that interfered with their ability to follow the Ten Commandments (Mark 7:9-13). In Catholicism, there is no separate allegiance. Loyalty to the Bride of Christ, the Church, is loyalty to Christ Himself (Ephesians 5:25-32).